Phytonutrients are nutrients found in plants that develop to protect the plant from damaging environments. Plants are exposed to excess ultraviolet radiation, predator pests, toxins and pollution, resulting in the generation of dangerous free radicals within their cells. These free radicals can then bind and damage proteins, cell membranes and DNA of the plant.
The American Cancer Society defines phytonutrients or phytochemicals as:
Plant compounds like carotenoids, lycopene, resveratrol and phytosterols that are thought to have health-protecting qualities. They are found in plants such as fruits and vegetables, or things made from plants, like tofu or tea. Phytochemicals are best taken in by eating the foods that contain them rather than taking the supplements or pills.
Fortunately, phytonutrients simultaneously develop to shield the plant from such damage as well as provide their color, flavor and smell. Why is this important to us? Since we are exposed to radiation and various environmental elements just like plants, we need phytonutrients to protect us.
How do we get phytonutrients? We get them by eating the plants! Each plant contains tens of thousands of different phytonutrients that can act as antioxidants, hence it’s key to eat high-antioxidant foods in order to fight free radical damage.
Consuming a diet filled with variety can boost the effectiveness of phytonutrients because different plants and vegetables contain different phytonutrients and when combined, they can have a more positive effect. When eating phytonutrients, our bodies absorb them — which is why we get bad breath, from eating garlic, a color change in our urine from eating beets and a strong odor that we sense when eating asparagus. All of these are packed with phytonutrients, making those side effects a good thing after all!
According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a diet rich in phytonutrients from fruits and vegetables, along with low-fat dairy foods and reduced saturated fat can substantially lower blood pressure. Authors concluded that such a diet offers an additional nutritional approach to preventing and treating hypertension.
The health benefits of blueberries, strawberries and red wine include providing the phytochemical anthocyanins. These anthocyanins can help improve vision. The National Center for Biotechnology Information reports that visual acuity can be markedly improved through certain pigments and their enhancement of night vision or overall vision has been particularly well documented. Black currants, for example, have resulted in significantly improved night vision adaptation in human subjects and similar benefits were gained after consuming bilberries.
Proanthocyanidins and flavan-3-ols are phytochemicals that can help decrease disease-causing inflammation and are found in red wine, grape juice extracts, cranberries and cocoa. Better known as resveratrol, studies have shown that these foods may help fight cancer, diabetes, protect against Alzheimer’s and provide endurance enhancement. Plant-based compounds may help to lower inflammation and reduce the risk of developing cancer. Cruciferous vegetables are also rich in fiber and low in calories, a combination that will help you feel full and satisfied without overeating.
Named sulfides and thiols, these phytochemicals in foods help decrease the LDL cholesterol, which is important since it provides the proper functioning of cells, nerves and hormones — as LDL cholesterol can build up in the arteries when inflammation levels are high in the body. They can be found in aromatic plants such as nutrition-rich onions, leeks, garlic, herbs as well as olives.
One of the largest classes of phytochemicals is terpenes, which include carotenoids. Carotenoids neutralize free radicals through a variety of foods like nutrition-loaded tomatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes and other brightly colored fruits and vegetables by helping prevent cell damage. Green and white tea are good sources of antioxidants. Since free radicals can be very harmful to our bodies and our immune system, it is important to consume foods that can help fight off any damage to our cells.
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